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Archive for January 8th, 2017

Andrew Bacevich, How We Got Here

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From TomDispatch.com:

It’s easy to forget just how scary the “good times” once were.  I’m talking about the 1950s, that Edenic, Father-Knows-Best era that Donald Trump now yearns so deeply to bring back in order to “make America great again.”  Compared to the apocalyptic fears of those years, present American ones would seem punk indeed, if it weren’t for the way our 24/7 media blow them out of all proportion.  I’m thinking, of course, mainly about terror attacks by various “lone wolves” that tend to dominate the news.  You know, the disturbed individuals who pick up a butcher knife or assault rifle and head for the nearest mall or club or college campus, or point a deadly vehicle toward a crowd with mayhem and murder in mind.  In 2016, in our increasingly securitized world (and language), such individuals have even gained their own official acronym: homegrown violent extremists, or HVEs.

If I think back to the nightmares of my own childhood, fears about the depredations of HVEs don’t add up to a hill of beans.  As a boy, I well remember the 1950s version of such hysteria and it concerned the obliteration of the city I lived in via a Cold War nuclear confrontation (of the sort that did indeed come close to happening). Like Bert the Turtle, at school we kids all “ducked and covered” in atomic drills. With Conelrad blasting from the radio on my teacher’s desk, I can remember crouching beneath my own, hands pathetically over my head, as if I could truly protect myself from an atomic attack. Outside sirens screamed and the activities of city life came to a halt.

For those of us who grew up then, just under nostalgic memories of the golden Fifties lies a vision of a world in ashes. Of course, we children had only a vague idea of what exactly had happened beneath the mushroom clouds that rose in August 1945 over two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we knew enough to realize that the message being delivered was not of safety but of ultimate vulnerability. In those moments (and the nuclear nightmares that, at least in my own life, went with them), the country secretly prepared the way for the Sixties, indicating that just below the surface of American triumphalism lay a vision of potentially horrifying defeat.

In our recent history, however, the most dangerous moment of all may have been one of next to no fears, only of expectations for the glories of an all-American world.  I’m thinking of the years TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, returns to today, the ones after the Berlin Wall was first breeched and the Soviet Union, that “evil empire” of Cold War fame, simply vanished, leaving behind only… well, us. That was the moment when the political and intellectual elite who had fought the Cold War and the corporate elite, including the warrior corporations of the military-industrial complex who had risen to power and fortune inside it, were suddenly staggered to discover that there seemed to be no one left to oppose them, nothing to stop them from doing their damnedest.

It was quite a moment, as Bacevich recalls, and it led us fearlessly (so to speak) into our present situation, which he aptly labels “the void.” Given where we’ve ended up in the age of Donald Trump, maybe all of us might have been better off tormented by a few more fears and fantasies of destruction, not construction. Tom

The Age of Great Expectations and the Great Void
History After “the End of History”
By Andrew J. Bacevich

The fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 abruptly ended one historical era and inaugurated another. So, too, did the outcome of last year’s U.S. presidential election. What are we to make of the interval between those two watershed moments? Answering that question is essential to understanding how Donald Trump became president and where his ascendency leaves us.

Hardly had this period commenced before observers fell into the habit of referring to it as the “post-Cold War” era. Now that it’s over, a more descriptive name might be in order.  My suggestion: America’s Age of Great Expectations.

Forgive and Forget

The end of the Cold War caught the United States completely by surprise.  During the 1980s, even with Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin, few in Washington questioned the prevailing conviction that the Soviet-American rivalry was and would remain a defining feature of international politics more or less in perpetuity. Indeed, endorsing such an assumption was among the prerequisites for gaining entrée to official circles. Virtually no one in the American establishment gave serious thought to the here-today, gone-tomorrow possibility that the Soviet threat, the Soviet empire, and the Soviet Union itself might someday vanish. Washington had plans aplenty for what to do should a Third World War erupt, but none for what to do if the prospect of such a climactic conflict simply disappeared.

Still, without missing a beat, when the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the Soviet Union imploded, leading members of that establishment wasted no time in explaining the implications of developments they had totally failed to anticipate.  With something close to unanimity, politicians and policy-oriented intellectuals interpreted the unification of Berlin and the ensuing collapse of communism as an all-American victory of cosmic proportions.  “We” had won, “they” had lost — with that outcome vindicating everything the United States represented as the archetype of freedom.

From within the confines of that establishment, one rising young intellectual audaciously suggested that the “end of history” itself might be at hand, with the “sole superpower” left standing now perfectly positioned to determine the future of all humankind.  In Washington, various powers-that-be considered this hypothesis and concluded that it sounded just about right.  The future took on the appearance of a blank slate upon which Destiny itself was inviting Americans to inscribe their intentions.

American elites might, of course, have assigned a far different, less celebratory meaning to the passing of the Cold War. They might have seen the outcome as a moment that called for regret, repentance, and making amends.

After all, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, or more broadly between what was then called the Free World and the Communist bloc, had yielded a host of baleful effects.  An arms race between two superpowers had created monstrous nuclear arsenals and, on multiple occasions, brought the planet precariously close to Armageddon.  Two singularly inglorious wars had claimed the lives of many tens of thousands of American soldiers and literally millions of Asians.  One, on the Korean peninsula, had ended in an unsatisfactory draw; the other, in Southeast Asia, in catastrophic defeat.  Proxy fights in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East killed so many more and laid waste to whole countries.  Cold War obsessions led Washington to overthrow democratic governments, connive in assassination, make common cause with corrupt dictators, and turn a blind eye to genocidal violence.  On the home front, hysteria compromised civil liberties and fostered a sprawling, intrusive, and unaccountable national security apparatus.  Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex and its beneficiaries conspired to spend vast sums on weapons purchases that somehow never seemed adequate to the putative dangers at hand.

Rather than reflecting on such somber and sordid matters, however, the American political establishment together with ambitious members of the country’s intelligentsia found it so much more expedient simply to move on. As they saw it, the annus mirabilis of 1989 wiped away the sins of former years. Eager to make a fresh start, Washington granted itself a plenary indulgence. After all, why contemplate past unpleasantness when a future so stunningly rich in promise now beckoned?

Three Big Ideas and a Dubious Corollary

Soon enough, that promise found concrete expression. In remarkably short order, three themes emerged to define the new American age.  Informing each of them was a sense of exuberant anticipation toward an era of almost unimaginable expectations. The twentieth century was ending on a high note.  For the planet as a whole but especially for the United States, great things lay ahead.

Focused on the world economy, the first of those themes emphasized the transformative potential of turbocharged globalization led by U.S.-based financial institutions and transnational corporations.  An “open world” would facilitate the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people and thereby create wealth on an unprecedented scale.  In the process, the rules governing American-style corporate capitalism would come to prevail everywhere on the planet.  Everyone would benefit, but especially Americans who would continue to enjoy more than their fair share of material abundance.

Focused on statecraft, the second theme spelled out the implications of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 4:53 pm

Netflix alert: “Coin Heist”

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I’m enjoying it quite a bit. It’s a “written and directed by,” and those tend to be good.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

What Not to Eat: ‘The Case Against Sugar’

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Dan Barber reviews an important book in the NY Times:

The Case Against Sugar
By Gary Taubes
365 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

Say your child petitioned for permission to smoke a pack of cigarettes a week. Say his or her logic was that a pack a week is better than a pack a day. No dice, right?

O.K., now substitute sugar for cigarettes.

Comparing the dangers of inhaling cigarettes with chowing down on candy bars may sound like false equivalence, but Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” will persuade you otherwise. Here is a book on sugar that sugarcoats nothing. The stuff kills.

Taubes begins with a kick in the teeth. Sugar is not only the root cause of today’s diabetes and obesity epidemics (had these been infectious diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have long ago declared an emergency), but also, according to Taubes, is probably related to heart disease, hypertension, many common cancers and Alzheimer’s.

Name a long-term, degenerative disease, and chances are Taubes will point you in the same direction.

In “The Case Against Sugar,” Taubes distills the carbohydrate argument further, zeroing in on sugar as the true villain. He implicates scientists, nutritionists and especially the sugar industry in what he claims amounts to a major cover-up.

Taubes’s writing is both inflammatory and copiously researched. It is also well timed. In September, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, uncovered documents showing that Big Sugar paid three Harvard scientists in the 1960s to play down the connection between sugar and heart disease and instead point the finger at saturated fat. Coca-Cola and candy makers made similar headlines for their forays into nutrition science, funding studies that discounted the link between sugar and obesity.

It’s tempting to predict that Taubes’s hard-charging (and I’ll add game-changing) book will diminish sugar’s dominance, sealing the fate that no ingredient could evade after such public relations disasters. But the history of sugar in this country suggests it won’t be that easy. Here is where Taubes is at his most persuasive, tracing sugar’s unique and intractable place in the American diet.

Start with World War II as an example, when . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 2:25 pm

Helpful aspects of continuous unobtrusive surveillance: Uber guide to fixing streets

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It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good, and thanks to the 24/7 surveillance over America domestic life and activities, in detail, Uber can now help cities locate streets most in need of repair. Alec Davies reports in Wired:

UBER HAS A rocky history with city governments—to put it mildly. As the ridesharing giant has spread its services over the globe, it has jumped into fights over regulations that would curtail its activities. The latest battlefield is New York City, where Uber is refusing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s demandthat it share with the city data on when and where it drops off every passenger.

Now, Uber is making something of a peace offering. The company is launching a new service that could help cities master their traffic. It’s called Uber Movement, and it uses information on the billions of rides Uber has completed. It’s free, open to anybody who wants to use it—today that’s limited to select planning agencies and researchers—and lets users track car travel times between any two points in a city at any time of day. It actually seems pretty helpful.

Built by a team of about 10 engineers over the past nine months, Movement now offers data for Manila, Sydney, and Washington, DC—with dozens more cities to come before it launches to the public in mid-February, and ultimately it’ll include data for every city that has Uber, going back to early 2016. Areas where Uber doesn’t provide enough rides to generate reliable and anonymized data are greyed out.

“We don’t manage streets. We don’t plan infrastructure,” says Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s chief of transportation policy. “So why have this stuff bottled up when it can provide immense value to the cities we’re working in?”

It’s true that localities often don’t have the resources to get that information themselves. . .

Continue reading.

The amount of information on you that is readily available to NSA if it so desires is really remarkable. Indeed, the public information on you that’s available to anyone who wants to buy it—your shopping history, the web sites you visit, all your “likes” on Facebook and elsewhere, your financial information (sold by credit agencies), and so on—is enormous in itself, and so it’s easy to select groups by various characteristics: race, income level, politics (liberal or conservative), etc.

If ever the government did want to focus on persons having a particular profile (to be subjects of investigation, or of closer surveillance, and so on, up to and including detainment under the Patriot Act as modified…), they surely have the best tools ever to manage it.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 2:10 pm

Donald Trump and the hobbling of shame: David Foster Wallace warned us about reality TV and we didn’t listen

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David Masciostra writes in Salon:

The best preview of the Donald Trump presidency was the orange billionaire rolling around on the ground with Vince McMahon, owner and operator of World Wrestling Entertainment, while thousands of frenzied fans screamed in approval. An underrated development in American life is that the Trump administration will become the first to feature not one, but two members of the WWE Hall of Fame – Linda McMahon, Vince’s wife, as director of the Small Business Administration, and the president himself. Trump’s brief foray in pro wrestling ended with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin performing his finishing maneuver, the “Stone Cold Stunner,” on Trump, rendering him incapacitated in the middle of the ring. If only the political process were so just.

“The allure of both drugs and entertainment,” the late David Foster Wallace once told an interviewer, “is escape. I can escape my problems and pretend that I’m James Bond for awhile, which is fine for a short haul. As a way of life, it doesn’t work well.” Much of the great author’s work has, unfortunately, become increasingly relevant, because one of his obsessions was the American addiction to amusement, and the culture’s tendency to reduce everything to entertainment. He wrote an essay on the mutation of human sexuality, most especially women’s lives, into entertainment, while covering the AVN Awards; he chronicled the life of a right wing talk radio host in California as an allegory against the dangers of treating political debate as fodder for amusement; he wrote about the poison of excessive television consumption, admitting he was such an offender that he had to remove all TV sets from his home to get any work done. Wallace’s signature achievement, the postmodern novel “Infinite Jest,” is built around a film of the same name, also called “The Entertainment,” that is so entertaining it immediately, and irrevocably, hypnotizes its viewers, rendering them motionless until death.

The popularity of reality television, not nearly as ubiquitous when he died as it is now, worried Wallace. In 2004, he confessed a fear that is now prophetic: “The inhibition of shame on the part of both the contestants and on the part of the people who put together the shows — at some point people have figured out that even if viewers are sneering or talking about in what poor taste stuff is, they’re still watching, and that the key is to get people to watch, and that that’s what’s remunerative. Once we’ve lost that shame hobble, only time will tell how far we’ll go.”

The election of Donald Trump, a vulgar veteran of reality television, to the presidency of the United States is one indication of “how far we’ll go” after collective emancipation from the “shame hobble.”

If there is one feeling that Americans dread, it is boredom. Smart phones, the omnipresence of TV and music, and the convenience of tablet devices all help Americans construct lives of perpetual distraction and amusement. The smartphone, for all of its good, offers the ever-present temptation of the Internet to those with short attention spans. Televisions blast headlines, sports scores and scripted comedy in the checkout lines of grocery stores, in every bar, and even at pumps of some gas stations. The challenge of finding silence in public space illustrates the resistance many Americans have to sustained focus and thought.

Public policy, political rhetoric and the administration of democratic institutions are not subjects of much suspense, humor or excitement. As serious, and often as grave, as political work and public management becomes, it remains vulnerable to the frivolousness of an uninformed, but more importantly, uninterested electorate. Donald Trump is far from responsible for how entertainment values have corrupted the political process. In 2000, according to many media commentators and in the minds of many voters, Al Gore was the boring college professor whose lectures acted as Nyquil, while George W. Bush was the towel-snapping frat boy who everyone on campus wants to “have a beer with.” If only the beer had not ended with an unnecessary war in Iraq, the drowning of New Orleans and the liquidation of middle-class wealth, personality appeal might make sense as a criterion for political evaluation.

There are rare moments when a candidate — like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama — who is capable of generating enthusiasm with charismatic charm but maintaining discipline and intellectual rigor, emerges victorious in a national election, but those men are exceptions to an absurd rule. . .

Continue reading.

Later:

. . .  Twelve years have passed since David Foster Wallace wondered about the ultimate destination of reality and trash television’s influence on the American public. The voters are well-practiced at taking what they see seriously, but not literally, and in the process, losing any interest in in truth, fidelity to facts and appreciation of authenticity. Perhaps many Trump supporters realize that their world heavyweight champion cannot “bring the jobs back” from China, or quickly destroy ISIS, but they cheer for the same reason they might cheer when the good guy body slams the bad guy. It is a skit meant for emotional catharsis. The beloved persona of Trump, through empty gestures, symbolizes the fight they wish they could win. Why, after all, in the style of wrestling fans, do Trump supporters continue to chant “lock her up!” long after Trump has repeatedly stated that he will not pursue prosecution for Hillary Clinton? . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 1:53 pm

Maureen Dowd has a cri de coeur column and the comments are awesome

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I’m referring to the comments in the tab “Editors’ Picks.” We really do seem to be at an inflection point.

Here’s the column (and comments).

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 1:12 pm

David Cole suggest five questions for Jeff Sessions in his confirmation hearing

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David Cole writes in the NY Review of Books:

On Wednesday, a group of thirty protesters staged a sit-in inside the Mobile, Alabama office of Republican Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. They delivered an ultimatum: they would stay until Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general of the United States, declined the nomination. Around 7 PM, police arrested six people for refusing to leave. All were from the NAACP—including its president, Cornell W. Brooks.

In a statement, Brooks explained why the NAACP believes Sessions is the wrong person for the job. “Sen. Sessions has callously ignored the reality of voter suppression but zealously prosecuted innocent civil rights leaders on trumped-up charges of voter fraud,” he said. “As an opponent of the vote, he can’t be trusted to be the chief law enforcement officer for voting rights.”

It’s no coincidence that the NAACP’s act of civil disobedience recalls the civil rights years. Sessions himself seems a throwback to that era—and not on the side of the heroes. And for the NAACP, a throwback is not what we need now, when racial tensions around policing are high, hate crimes have dramatically increased, and white supremacists have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. Throughout his career, Sessions has shown insensitivity, if not outright hostility, to the interests not only of African-Americans, but of Muslims, gays and lesbians, women, and immigrants as well. The attorney general of the United States is charged with enforcing the law equally for all, and with overseeing the enforcement of the civil rights laws that protect those most vulnerable. Is Jeff Sessions the right man for the job?

Cornell Brooks will be testifying at Sessions’s confirmation hearing, which will be conducted Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. I will also be testifying, on behalf of the ACLU. As a matter of longstanding policy, the ACLU does not take positions supporting or opposing nominees for office, and as a result it rarely testifies in confirmation hearings. But we are sufficiently concerned about Sen. Sessions’s record that we have elected to depart from our usual practice and speak out—not to oppose the nomination, but to insist that the many questions about Sessions’s record must be answered before the Senate votes on his nomination. Here are five:

  1. Does Sessions believe that all Americans, regardless of race, should have an equal right to vote?

The last time Sessions stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee—in 1986, when President Ronald Reagain nominated him to be a federal district court judge—this question was fatal. The hearing was dominated by allegations that Sessions had called a black colleague “boy,” and told that same black colleague that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned that some of them smoked marijuana. The hearing also focused on  Sessions’s vigorous prosecution of  three civil rights activists in Alabama one year earlier for helping African-Americans to vote. The lead defendant, Albert Turner, was a civil rights icon who worked for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, marched with John Lewis across the bridge at Selma, and earned the nickname “Mr. Voter Registration” for registering black voters after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Because of the work of Turner and others like him, the number of African-Americans voting in Alabama rose from near zero in 1965 to 70,000 in 1982, helping elect over one hundred black officials.

For some, opening the vote to African-Americans for the first time in Alabama was something to celebrate. For Sessions, it was a cause for concern. He launched an aggressive and intrusive investigation of absentee voting only in districts where black voting had increased. As a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice observes, quoting from a 1985 Chicago Tribune investigation of voter disenfranchisement in Alabama:

Sen. Sessions and his counterpart in the Northern District of Alabama began investigating alleged absentee ballot fraud by black civil-rights activists…. “Hundreds of witnesses, most of them black, [were] interviewed about vote fraud.” Meanwhile, at the same time, the Department of Justice refused to investigate complaints that white politicians solicited longtime nonresidents to submit absentee ballots in local elections. In Perry County, where the Marion Three had collected absentee ballots, the FBI went to the doors of hundreds of black citizens, flashing their badges, asking how they had voted, whether they had received help from black civil-rights activists, whether they could read and write, and why they had voted absentee. The chairman of the National Council of Black State Legislators called the tactics an effort “to disenfranchise blacks who are finally gaining political power in the South.”

Sessions then threw the book at Turner and the other two defendants, who faced more than one hundred years in prison for allegedly violating the Voting Rights Act. According to former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who represented one of the defendants, Sessions maintained that it was a federal crime to advise people on how to vote. It is not, of course. Indeed, advising people on how to vote is the whole point of electoral campaigns. The judge dismissed more than fifty counts before trial, rejecting Sessions’s novel and anti-democratic theory. When Sessions proceeded to trial on the remaining counts, the jury of seven African-Americans and five whites acquitted the defendants on all charges in short order.

This case was so troubling during Sessions’s 1986 confirmation hearing that the Judiciary Committee, in a bipartisan vote, declined to send Sessions’s nomination to the Senate floor, and the nomination was withdrawn. In the thirty years since, the questions raised at the 1986 hearing have never been satisfactorily answered. . .

Continue reading.

The other questions, discussed in turn, are:

  1. How does Sessions defend his record on voting rights laws in the twenty years he has been a Senator for Alabama?
  2. Why has Sessions so often opposed efforts to protect the rights of women and gays and lesbians?
  3. Is Sessions prepared to treat all religions equally, and to honor the separation of church and state?
  4. Can Senator Sessions be an attorney general for all the people?

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2017 at 11:54 am

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